The Chance Theater’s presentation of “Anne of Green Gables,” a musical based on the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery, directed by Casey Long, reminds us that any season, not just this Christmas one, is the season for a compelling story of courage and inspiration, a heroine with which we can identify and for whom we can root, a good ensemble effort, and a simple, effective stage.
Long successfully sets up orphaned Anne Shirley’s (Jessie McLean) outsider status and then systematically shows us how she becomes a valued member of that otherwise insular community of Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island in Canada.
Her challenges are formidable. Besides being an orphan, Anne has to contend with not being the boy her foster parents Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Marina Coffee and William Crisp) expected; with being redheaded with freckles; and with being of a romantic, mercurial nature (she immediately falls in love with the garden, orchard, brook, and woods of Green Gables; she seeks nothing more than a kindred spirit and “empathizing sympathy.”). Through sheer, disingenuous will she distinguishes herself as a friend to Diana Barrhy (Kristin Danielson-Jardine), a potential love interest with and otherwise academic rival to Gilbert Blythe (Joseph Mayers) and, literally, a life saver to an ill neighbor girl.
The costumes and set contribute significantly to the production’s success. Erika C. Miller’s costumes establish period and character. Masaka Tobaru’s set consists of pages from the book projected onto the back wall. The effect is like an iPad screen shot though the flesh and blood actors remind us of the miracle of live theatre, vivid, before us.
The ensemble performance is cozily effective. McLean keenly grasps Anne’s motivation and desire to fit in to Avonlean society. She fully understands both her character’s attributes (red hair, freckles) that make her stand out and her initial social standing (an orphan bereft of parental affection; an adopted child who wasn’t the boy her new family wanted; the new kid in school, introduced to that new society at an awkward age).
Her Anne is desperate and enthusiastic. She’s confident and capable at the same time she wonders if she’ll find acceptance, a kindred spirit, a place. She’s quick tempered, wears her heart on her sleeve, and projects nervous energy. One of the songs characterizes her as twelve girls rolled into one; and McClean captures each one, with no dramatic overload. The production’s set up as a young woman’s coming of age in difficult, to say the least, circumstances; and McLean’s performance ensures that Anne triumphs resplendently, as befits a Christmas production, not to mention any other time of year – or life – as well.
Coffee, Crisp, Danielson-Jardine, and Mayers bookend McLean. They challenge as well as comfort and inspire her. They are both the source of Anne’s early despair as well as the recipient of the fruit of her later development. Each of them – as well as us, the audience - are better people for having known her.
As enacted here, Anne’s journey is our journey. She shows how character is defined not by words but actions. Whether it’s facing – or else remembering – the difficulties or growing up; whether it’s the response to getting to the end of one’s rope and deciding to climb back up instead of letting go, we can appreciate – and emulate - her plunky, persistent spirit which, really, is what Christmas is all about.
Performances are 8pm, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 3pm, Saturday, and 2pm and 7pm, Sunday. The show runs until December 23. Tickets are $22-30. The Theater is located at 5552 E, La Palma Avenue, Anaheim Hills. For more information, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.chancetheater.com.